Will the Pan African Parliament ever be worthy of its name?

2016-05-05

Will the Pan African Parliament (PAP) ever live up to its intended ambition to be a real continental legislature? Or will it remain forever a glorified talk shop; a display of faux democracy?

This question remains open as it celebrates its 12th birthday this year and begins the second ordinary session of its fourth Parliament at its premises in Midrand, South Africa this week.

From its launch in 2004, the PAP was intended to someday become the legislature for the African Union (AU), which had created it as one of its several institutions for continental democracy and integration.

Others include NEPAD (the New Partnership for Africa's Development, also based in another building in Midrand) and the struggling African Peer Review Mechanism. But so far it has essentially just been another forum for debating the same African issues as other AU institutions do; though, perhaps, with a slightly greater diversity of opinion, as opposition parties also have a voice.

Few states have signed the Malabo Protocol, and even fewer had ratified it

So the wider public knows little about the PAP. Its sessions in its unobtrusive building on the edge of the Gallagher Estate convention complex come and go a few times a year, attracting very little media or public attention. The big-name keynote speakers who are billed to open its sessions more often than not don’t bother to attend. That happened again this week, when Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma was supposed to open the session on Tuesday. He sent his deputy instead.

It would be interesting to survey the many South Africans working or living in Midrand, and ask how many of them realise that the Parliament of Africa is right there among them.

At the opening of the session this week, former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano – who was present at the birth of the PAP when still in office – insisted the PAP had notched up many achievements in its 12 years. Those were mainly about sharing experiences of governance and legislating, which had increased the ‘maturity’ of the 270 members of the PAP. (Five for each of the AU’s 54 member states.)

Chissano has played an important role in trying to solve African crises over the last few years. He was the mediator in the recent political crisis in Madagascar and is currently the AU’s special envoy for Western Sahara.

He recalled that the PAP had been created as the Parliament for the AU’s envisaged united government for Africa (what others have called the United States of Africa). This is the area where it is meant to be legislating.

What was needed now was for the PAP to be given those legislative powers, he said.

That began to happen, in theory, at the AU’s heads of states summit in June 2014 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, of all places. (The AU has a special genius for choosing symbolically incongruous venues given that Equatorial Guinea is by all accounts not a model of democracy.) At the summit, leaders adopted an amended protocol which, among other things, would give the PAP its long-intended legislative power.

The Pan African Parliament wants more money to do its job better, but will it be well spent?

For this so-called Malabo Protocol to come into force though, a simple majority of the AU’s 54 member states – i.e. 28 states – would have to sign it, ratify it and deposit their instruments of ratification with the AU.

To date only one country, Mali, has done all that. Three others have signed and ratified it and six more have only signed, according to PAP President Roger Nkodo Dang. This means that 44 countries have done nothing at all yet to give the PAP legislative powers.

Chissano said this week he was very concerned that so few states had signed the Malabo Protocol and even fewer had ratified it. He reminded Africa’s leaders that by adopting the protocol, they had committed themselves to implementing it, even if they did not regard it as a high priority now.

This extreme tardiness suggests a lack of political will by the heads of member states to be answerable to a Parliament with real power. That appears to be so even though the Malabo Protocol seems to have been intended to dilute the PAP’s representivity in some ways.

According to the protocol that initially established the PAP, it was supposed to include five members from every country – one of whom should be a woman; and including members of opposition parties. The protocol stated that ‘the representation of each state party must reflect the diversity of political opinions in each National Parliament or other deliberative body.’

This last prerequisite was apparently a bridge too far for many undemocratic leaders on the continent. Initially, there was strict adherence to this principle and it was interesting to see opposition MPs in the same delegation as their counterparts from the ruling parties. Today, however, it remains unclear whether the delegations are truly representative of all major political movements in every African country.

Again, as with the AU, this continental institution is struggling to be better than the sum of its parts. In fact, the 2014 amended protocol added to the original sentence about the five-member delegation that it should ‘take into account the number of members from each political party represented in the national Parliament.’ This could have been included as a loophole to ensure mostly ruling party MPs are sitting in the PAP.

Funding the PAP is also a huge problem for the AU and member countries. Countries are supposed to fit the bill for their delegations, but hotels in Johannesburg can be expensive for a two-week stint by five members of Parliament.

The PAP’s basic funding of some US$16 to 17 million a year comes from the AU. But the PAP wants more money to do its job better, it says.

The PAP would have just as much democratic power as AU leaders choose to devolve to it

However not everyone agrees that would be money well spent. ‘Given the current funding constraints on key areas of the AU’s activities, notably in peace and security, and the disinterest in empowering the PAP to make independent and binding decisions, it is questionable whether there is much immediate value in providing it with additional funding,’ says Stephanie Wolters, head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division at the Institute for Security Studies.

Despite the delays in ratifying the Malabo Protocol, both Chissano and Dang were at pains this week to dismiss any suggestion of a lack of political will – or the existence of ill-will – towards the PAP. They both suggested mere procedural requirements were the cause of the delay.

Dang said 2016 was crucial for the PAP because it had determined to reach the 28 votes needed to bring the Malabo Protocol into force this year. And he was confident that at the current pace, that would happen.

And he offered the assurance that neither national governments nor regional organisations need fear that a PAP armed with legislative powers would in any way displace national or regional parliaments.

‘We won’t touch your sovereignty,’ he said. That was because the mandate of the PAP would be the integration of the continent. Once given legislative powers, its task would only be to ensure that national and regional policies did not undermine the AU blueprint for the integration of Africa.

What that might mean in practice, though, is hard to tell. ‘Integration’ is a very vague term and one can imagine that a broad definition might include undemocratic practices, which violate the AU charter’s foundation principles. Perhaps that is worrying some African leaders.

However Dang added the extra reassurance that the heads of the AU’s member states would reserve the power to ensure the PAP stuck to that mandate: the Malabo Protocol gives them the explicit authority, through the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, to determine the areas of the PAP’s jurisdiction.

This means that the PAP would have as much democratic power as the AU leaders choose to devolve to it. That sounds rather similar to the extent of legislative power exercised by many national Parliaments across Africa.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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